How long can I carry a broken heart through the world? How long can I imagine myself severed from all that is good?
The pain started when I was an infant. My biological father brought his new girlfriend with him to see me and leave me and my mother behind. He wasn’t proud of me. I was proof that he had seduced a teenager on her seventeenth birthday. I didn’t see him again until I was fifteen years old, when he made a lewd joke about my mother and gave me a twenty-dollar gift card for missing my birthdays. I had walked unwanted through the world for fifteen years by then, and twenty dollars was what he offered in place of his blessing.
I only met my biological father because my stepdad, who I thought was my biological dad, rejected me. He was drunk and wanted to get drunker, so he tried to pick a fight to justify leaving us for a few days. It was a pattern I had learned by heart, and I set myself against it. That night, he tried to accuse me of not cleaning my room, but I had cleaned my room. He accused me of not doing my homework, but I had done my homework. His game was to find an imperfection on my part to use an excuse for his three day drinking binges, so I tried to be perfect. I was impeccably polite as he cussed me and insulted me. Finally, instead of letting me win the standoff, he pulled out his secret weapon, one I had not suspected and could not defend against. “You’re not even my daughter!”
I broke. “How can you say that?” Tears came, as the burning in my face switched from anger and shame to grief.
He had done what he meant to do. He had provoked a negative response. He stormed out of the house to drink away his paycheck, leaving my mother and us four kids to worry about him. My mother sat on the couch and lit a cigarette. “He’s telling the truth. You have a biological father.” She arranged the meeting.
I was part of a church then that emphasized how much I was a sinner. But they also told us to read the Bible. I did. I read it as someone whom no one loved, who had managed to be rejected by not one, but two fathers. I read cryptic promises there: God would listen to people who wouldn’t stop asking for help, and God wouldn’t reject me for being brokenhearted and crushed in spirit. God would not put me to shame. That last one was hard to believe. I had been nothing but a shame to my family. No, that’s not what it looked like outside, no doubt. I had achieved highly and been as good as I knew how. But I had survived a lot of abuses, too, and I had acted in ways that made me ashamed to exist. I was afraid that all I did would be spoken of as good intentions that had led me into hell anyhow. Hell was my home. I didn’t like it, but anyone could see that I smelled too bad and was too poor and too unwanted to live anywhere else.
Except that I wanted God. I was terrified that I was too trashy to be loved by God, but He had said He wanted people like me. I started to cry myself to sleep every night, praying, “Please, please help me.” I would read and say again and again, “a broken and contrite heart, you will not despise.” I read the prophets and saw God say to the oppressed and broken ones that they would not be put to shame, and I knew I was one of the ones He was talking to.
I forced myself to call God “Father,” even though my fathers rejected me. I didn’t think “father” meant what they were. Jesus treated me so different than my fathers had. His Father must be different. I read the promises about becoming heirs with Jesus and coming to be one with Jesus, but I knew I was trash. I couldn’t imagine God being so unjust as to associate freely with someone like me. I saw myself in the story of the woman who was willing to be called a dog if only God would help her daughter. I could be a dog under God’s table. At least I could be near Him, then, even if He didn’t like me. I assumed He wouldn’t like me.
There are a lot of smug people who mock Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man), largely because they haven’t read it, and those people ought to shut their mouths. When I read in that book that God’s justice saw human nature in the mud and went and cleaned it up, I was overjoyed. I had been wrong about the way God worked. He wasn’t embarrassed to be around a trash person like me. He saw that I wasn’t trash at all and came and got me.
I had read the story of the pearl of great price that one would give everything to buy. I set about breaking the cycles of abuse and addiction in my family, seeking to please God rather than man. I was put to shame, rejected by my family, hated by my parents. I distanced myself for decades in order to not play a role in their abusive cycles. I heard people lie about me and spread vicious lies through the family. My mother took credit for all the things I did well and invented evils when she wanted sympathy. My youth group ignored me. My new youth pastor’s wife told me that I was using the need to obey God rather than man as an excuse to be disobedient and rebellious (never mind that I was using it as my anchor on virtue and bravery, without sacrificing obedience and deference). One day God showed me a vision that gave me a sense of His presence with me. When I confided in my youth group worker, she told me I was codependent and just wanted to save the world. When I tried to ask for help from extended family, my mother wove lies and suggested I was disturbed and might need to be institutionalized. I was alone. I hoped it was enough to buy that pearl, because I had nothing else. Even my material belongings weren’t really mine. My father begrudged the food I ate and told me so. My mother pawned or traded anything I owned of value and ruined the rest of it by neglect.
I don’t know how to be a good person. I don’t feel like one, and I’m not one. I don’t have the equipment. I feel like someone told to make an electric circuit who only has dirt and sticks at her disposal, no wires, not even lightning. All I hope is that God doesn’t require that I be good, that He has a way in for people like me. Look, I know how it looks from the outside. I am accomplished and smart and stable. But inside is a desert with a river in it that gushes always. And I love that water and the God I meet walking here beside it. And I also don’t know myself. Because I am comfortable seeing myself as the idiot, trash child in the dirt who can’t conduct electricity, but I act like a disciple who has the river of life in her heart. Did I give up everything, then? Or do I need to pay another installment on that pearl?
What I want to tell you is that I am the pearl of great price. I thought it was my job to give everything I had to go buy it. And I was embarrassed at how little I had to offer. But it was me all along. God gave everything He is to come get me.
How long can I walk through the world with a broken heart without seeming like ungrateful trash? But here I am again, crying and lying to myself.
I want to believe that I can be good, because God said so. I want to believe that God made me for something better than rejection. That I can cooperate with God. That synergy with the Holy Spirit is real and I am not just getting in the way. But I’m so hurt. I have a broken way of knowing.
I know that I’m saying stupid stuff and not even knowing what I’m saying.
What I think has happened is that people tried to put me to shame, and I let them. I did wrong in accepting their lies. God isn’t the one wearing the jackboots that kick me when I’m down.
I have come to the end of story. I cannot tell myself a story that propels me or feel a way forward to God. I am spent like the woman who suffered a hemorrhage for twelve years. She spent all she had and was no better but rather worse. But she like me had let a promise creep into her heart. She had heard Isaiah 6 and seen in hope the hem of the Lord’s robe filling the temple with glory. She recognized that hem when she saw Jesus in the crowd. She wasn’t good enough to speak to him. She knew her place. She was human trash, unclean, untouchable. But that hem! If she could just touch it, she knew that God would heal her.
And of all the women in the Bible, Jesus called her Daughter.
There comes a moment when I am spent. I no longer have strength to weigh seeming pieties and suss out the medicines prescribed to others that are poisons to me. I have no energy, no stories to tell myself, to protect me from the truth. The lie is that I am not good. If I keep saying that, I am worshipping the idol of my desire to be accepted by my fathers. To save face for them, I must be bad. To justify their rejection, I have to say I’m evil. To bolster their egos, I have to say I’m stupid. But the truth is that I’m mostly good. I make big mistakes. I cuss. I get my feelings hurt and have a hard time letting go of problems I can’t fix. I am kind and virtuous, mostly. I don’t do evil to others willfully. I am blazingly brilliant. I work hard and have insights. I’m prayerful and generous. I am willing to stand in the flame of God even when it burns up my delusions. I was stuck in hell, and Christ came and got me.
I am my Father’s daughter. I have touched the hem. I have felt the healing. I can no longer pretend to be what I am not.
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